Major Archaeological Discovery Sutton Hoo Ship

About the major archaeological discovery of the Sutton Hoo Ship, history of the English ship found by C.W. Phillips.


Year: 1939

Location: Woodbridge, England, near the river Deben

Discoverers: C. W. Phillips and others

Findings: The curiosity of a Suffolk woman, Mrs. E. M. Pretty, led to the find, the greatest ever located on English soil. Intrigued by 11 strange mounds on her property, she hired Basil Brown, a part-time employee at the Ipswich Museum, to investigate. In May, 1939, some months after he began, he opened a long trench on the largest mound. Almost at once, he saw a pattern of rusty iron clench bolts in the sand, easily recognizable as the outline of a boat. No wood remained, having long since decayed, but an impression, like a photographic negative, still could be seen. Brown correctly assumed that the long barrow hid the remains of a huge buried ship.

Britain's Ministry of Works took over, calling in Phillips and a professional archaeological team. In late July, they began to excavate at the mound's midpoint, searching for a burial chamber. Gold and silver jewelry and trappings appeared in such magnificent abundance that the elated team realized they had uncovered a royal burial site.

The treasures found included a solid gold purse filled with Merovingian gold coins, a belt studded with over 4,000 garnets, and a 14-oz. golden buckle for a royal shoulder belt. The Viking-style burial also produced a Swedish battle helmet of gilt bronze, a sword and shield embossed with gold, a huge Byzantine silver dish, nine smaller bowls, and many other precious objects, in an excellent state of preservation.

The discoveries added considerably to knowledge about the cultural achievements of the Anglo-Saxons in the period just before East Anglia converted to Christianity. Not only was a very high level of craftsmanship shown, but the mixture of Byzantine, Scandinavian, and central European styles indicated a much wider inter-change through commerce than had been previously suspected. The site also closely verified the burial ceremonies afforded to the fallen warriors in the epic Beowulf, where they are laid to rest with "... many treasures and ornaments from distant lands."

No body was found. The Woodbridge grave was a cenotaph, a tomb for a person whose body is buried elsewhere. Its pagan aspects pointed to Aethelbere, a 7th-century East Anglian king, as the ruler being honored. His remains had been irretrievably lost during the Northumbrian battle at Winwaed on Nov. 15,665 A.D.

The treasure was removed just before W.W. II began. No further digging was done until the mid-1960s, when British Museum experts reopened the site to study the ship with new scientific techniques. Some damage had occurred, chiefly due to use of the mounds as an obstacle course for British army tank commanders during the war. These studies established the ship's length as 89 ft. and its width as 15 ft., and revealed sides tapering in to a sharp point at each end. There being neither a proper keel nor a sail, the ship relied upon 38 oars for its propulsion.

To settle the question of who owned the valuables--the Crown or Mrs. Pretty--a coroner's inquest was called, more than a millennium after the event. The jury ruled in favor of Mrs. Pretty, giving her a treasure valued in six figures. She promptly donated it all to the British Museum, where it can be seen today.

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